Sacramento, a LRT success?

November 15, 2011

Between 2 rants, a wellknown blog from time to time, post pictures of empty trains wandering in some soulless NA districts. those pictures are supposed to advocate by themselves for LRT everywhere in BC.

A picture of the Sacramento LRT; somewhat qualified as a success by the LRTA ; gives us the opportunity to shed some light on the claims advanced by some disengenuous LRT advocates.

a train wandering on a deserted k street, once the heart of Sacramento: where are the people gone? (credit phot (5))

Urban renewval.

Usually people cite Portland as an example of urban renewval induced by LRT: one of the main reason is that there is no other example to cit.

The vancouver LRT advocating blog suggests that we should follow the example of Scacramento K street for not less than our Granville mall.

After been closed to motor traffic in 1960, the once vibrant Sacramento K street mall, has started to spiralling into business slump, pretty much like Granville did…In 1987, the introduction of the LRT was eventually the tool supposed to revert the K street bad fortunes.

Alas, the LRT didn’t bring urban renewval in Sacramento. Some other efforts has been put in without success and it appeared lately to the local that the LRT was more part of the problem than from the solution…and, this very week-end, resident of the city was celebrating the reopenning the K street to motor traffic, as the latest attempt to bring urban renewval!

people are coming on K street to celebratre the return of car on a once LRT exclusive corridor (it was Saturday Nov. 12, 2011)

In the meantimes, on Granville Mall, it could be no LRT, but we don’t need car either to bring life…


while people of the Valley complain about bad service, bad service because poor frequency, like 30mn headway…others explain that rapid transit should be available 24h/day.

The Sacramento Gold line extension, connecting the Folsom suburb to vancouver, offer a 30mn frequency…peak day…no service after 7pm on week-end…and the 30km journey will take you 1hour. Enjoy!

In the meantime, on the skytrain lines…

Notice that Park and ride are plentifull along the Sacramento LRT lines:

whereas Vancouver people come by bus to meet the Skytrain, in Sacramento people drive to the LRT…Some in Vancouver believe it is a superior alternative but it is certainly a less efficient use of land and it contribute to maintain a reliance on the car are primary transportation mode, and per way of consequence is certainly not the most efficient way to prevent urban sprawl.

Operating cost

A frequent claim done is that a train is no more costly to operate than a bus, here again, Sacramento provides a resounding rebuttal to this claim [4]:

cost per revenue vehicle hour
bus $133
LRT $239

In short, he same operating cost expenditure can buy a 8.5mn bus frequency where LRT doesn’t offer better than 15mn.

it is more than probable than the Sacramento LRT 15mn frequency can’t be justified by ridership level, but is maintained as a floor frequency to keep some relevance to the service. In despite of this minimum, the Sacramento LRT farebox recovery hoover in the low 30%.

generalized LRT Cost

Sacramento LRT has been built on the cheap, and is still built on the cheap…the latest extension under construction will come-up at 40$ million/km…Explanation:

the LRT follow a track ROW, then a canal ROW

this 40$ million/km give probably a good proxy to evaluate the cost to build an LRT in a BC hydro right of way…for other case, we will refer to a previous post

But do we really get the bang for the buck ?

The Gold line extension

What some lenient LRT fans conveninetly forget is that we need to confront number toward benefit:

A 12km extension of the Gold line toward Folsom has been built at a cost of $20 million/km and opened in stage between 2004 and 2006 and was expected to attract 6,000 more rider at opening. That ends to be an investment of $100,000 per additional customer…

Alas again, after $300 million spent, and in despite of some press report qualifying the ridership as at “healthy level“, it looks like the new rider hasn’t show up as expected, since the ridership in 2011 is virtually the same as it was in 2004 before the openning of these extensions [6]

That is not overly surprising, since the extension also shows the limit of the LRT concept: the LRT needs one hour to travel the 30km between Folsom and Sacramento, otherwise well linked by an Interstate hwy.

The south line extension

How it compare to the Evergreen line? (all number from [3] for Sacramento).

Sacramento South line vancouver Evergreen line
length 6.8km 10.9km (1)
stations 4 5 (1)
inter stations 1.36km 1.81km
Capital cost (in $M) $270 $1400 (2)
Yearly Operating cost (in $M) $8.84 $10.2 (1)
Yearly Ridership forecast(new trip)* 3.5(0.8) 17(8) (2)
operating cost per trip (per new trip) $2.5 ($11) $.6 ($1.27)
capital cost per trip (new trip)** $4.93 ($21.6) $5.86($11.1)
total cost per trip (new trip) $7.43 (33.6) $6.46 ($12.37)

* ridership come from transfer of other transit mode + new customer, trip generated by new customer only are in (), and cost per trip in () generated on the basis of new customer’s trip only.
** Capital cost assuming an amortization period of 30 years at 5%.

On one hand the Sacramento rider, will have a train at frequency no better than 15mn, 30mn after 6:30pm, last train at/around 10pm. On the other hand the Vancouver rider will take for granted a service level which stay the exception in the LRT world, but can come at a marginal operating cost increment in the realm of the automated trains.

When a “cheap” LRT can quickly reveal to be a more expensive proposition than an “pricey” skytrain

Numbers strongly suggest that in despite of looking “cheap” the Sacramento extension will be significantly more expensive than the Evergreen line on a rider basis. When considered new rider only – the eventual reason to go with LRT being it attracts more new customer otherwise reluctant to take bus- the Sacramento extension is a proposition nearly as three time more expensive that the Evergreen line.

Sacramento could have its own reasons to extend its LRT network, but considering that by tyical metric standard, the Sacramento LRT hardly qualify as a success, it is also highly probable that the Vancouver area doesn’t need to follow the path of Sacramento, and can continue to pursue avenue providing more leverage for its scarce transit bucks. This assessment is not based on the love (or hate) of a technology, but on the use of the appropirate technology

…and when a technology is appropriate, there is no need for disingenous and misleading claims as too often read on some rail fan blogs, to make its case for.

[1] Operating cost as reported in evergreen line executive summary

[2] ridership forecast as reported in Translink 2012 Moving Forward plan. notice that this number are less optimistic than the one reported in [1]

[3] number from South Sacramento corridor phase 2

[4] Sacramento Sept 2011 performance report


[6] 2011 and 204 2nd quarter ridership number from APTA

The vancouversun has a story about a man claiming it is not clear enough to where you have to validate your ticket. He could have a point:

Brighouse station: ticket vending machines are easy to spot, but where are the ticket validators machines?

Whether you are a bit distracted, it can be very easy to find yourself without properly validated ticket on the train. Not only nowhere there is a physical line reminding you to validate your ticket, but ticket validators are rather hidden in some stations. without going to turnstiles, that doesn’t need to be as I have already mentioned here


smartcard access to the subway of Rennes, France, is done without turnstile. Nevertheless, notice how the smartcard readers are placed in proeminent position on the farepaid zone line. credit photo wikipedia

Post updated on April 6th

As mentioned by Stephen Rees, I was at “a special blogger breakfast” about the project where Jeff Busby and Margaret Wittgens from Translink provided a description of the different options and was answering our questions [1]. Translink has provided significantly more material in this phase than in phase 1.

The consultation process

Like in Phase 1, translink has scheduled several workshops. In those workshops, Translink staff engage conversation where you have the opportunity to discuss your concerns, opinions not only with staff but also with your ‘neighbors’ and understand others viewpoints. It is a very constructive approach, and I warmly recommend people to attend those workshops and provide feedback as soon as possible in the process to Translink.

Some comments:

In the preliminary phases, it was unclear what Translink was meaning by “LRT”, an LRT in the American sense, or a tram in the European sense? A later solution apparently favored by noticeably UBC professor Patrick Condon and a relatively active Broadway merchant group called BARSTA.

  • The Phase 2 gives a clear answer: the option is an LRT in the american sense.

Compared to the “business as usual case” (assumed to be the bus 99B) [4] the cost required to attract additional ridership is around $25,000 per new rider, as suggested by the graph below comparing the different solutions proposed by Translink

cost per new rider is around $25,000, except two outliers, the RRT above and the BRT below. Numbers from (4)

That is, the additional ridership could be at the expense of local bus routes, so if the goal is to increase the Transit mode share, and that is a goal of both the Province and the City of Vancouver [5], the figure become more striking, and solutions providing net gain time on the Commercial Drive to Central Broadway seems at a net advantage in term of “buck for the bang”.

Capital cost per point of additional Transit mode share in the corridor, compared to the 'business as usual' case. Numbers from (4)

Some solutions provide clear advantage in time of access time from Commercial to Cambie, and convenience from the Millenium (lack of Transfer), over others; and at least from the cost/additional rider perspective, looks reasonably priced. Obviously it couldn’t be the only metrics to look at…among others are the travel time to UBC [2], operating cost…

Under this regard, the lately added Combo 2 , RRT+BRT, could require more refinement:
The redundancy of service East of Arbutus doesn’t seem to provide the bang for the buck, noticeably in term of serviced area. We could have preferred something looking more like the rubber tire version of Combo 1 or looking like the figure below

Combo 2 could have been maybe better served by a 'BRT' reusing the 84 alignment terminating at Main, and a potential rerouting of the 44 to serve the RRT

The regional perspective

That is, as reported of this week workshops, and already outlined here, it is hard to ignore the regional significance of the connection of the Millennium line to the Canada line, which could have a “shaping” effect probably as great as if not greater than an extension of the existing Skytrain in the confins of the GVRD.

A discussion has been engaged by Stephen Rees on the trip model used to generate ridership. It appeared that Translink consider the Evergreen line built in its modelling. That says, they also rely on growth projection provided by external agencies; and this growth projection could not have considered a transit network effect

The network effect

The gap in the Vancouver rapid transit network is hard to ignore. credit (3)

On this topic, Jeffrey Busby mentioned that the scope of the study is really the Broadway corridor, and not addressing the question of the “extension” or not of the Millennium line.

  • According to the selected option, this question could be still open, leaving customer of the Millennium line to their frustration for very long time.

In that sense, an apparent cheaper solution, not based on an extension of the Millennium line could prove to be a costly mistake, but obviously all of that need to be quantified and LRT could make sense at least on part of the corridor

[1] You will find other account of it at, vpsn blog or

[2] The choice to prefer to compare travel time between Commercial and central Broadway rather than UBC is deliberate since UBC bound riders, mostly students, could be less sensitive to travel time than the more general users.

[3] Illustration from Jarret Walker

[4] UBC Line Rapid Transit Study Evaluation Summary – March/April 2011

[5] Province call for a doubling of the Transit ridership by 2020. Vancouver call for 50% non-auto mode share in the city by 2020

The 209 annual report released at the Translink‘s AGM contains some interesting statements

The Skytrain

It is claimed that the “Expo and Millennium SkyTrain Lines are the most efficient, lowest-cost operations in North America” with a supporting comparison with some selected American LRT. One will wonder why, the figure doesn’t include the Calgary LRT?


An interesting figure comparing the GHG emission per mode seems to be a direct answer to prof. Patrick Condon claims stated in several of its publications [4]. Unfortunatly, Translink number doesn’t seems to be produced with much more rigor than the professor Patrick Condon’s one.

But the more interesting and worrisome numbers will require further reading of the report to get extracted:

Operating efficiency

year Number of revenue passengers in millions Operating Cost in $Millions Fare Revenue in $Millions Operating cost recovery
2005 160 516 284 56.4%
2006 165 572 300 53.8%
2007 172 621 316 52.5%
2008 179 688 347 52%
2009 188 735 355 49.8%

Like eventually previously mentioned by the Translink commission, the growth strategy pursued by Translink appears non sustainable, in the sense that the ridership increase doesn’t translate in farebox recovery improvement. Worse, it degrades it.

To be sure Translink is not the only agency in this case, as we have seen in the Zurich model, but eventually the region could not spare a debate on the expected level of funding of transit operation (and subsidiary sources).

the Service rationalization initiative

In the immediate, the answer seems to be the service rationalization initiative. Some Observers seems to dismiss it [3] but it is probably a welcome move if done to ensure the sustainability of the ridership growth. Again, the Zurich model demonstrates that service, and consequently ridership, can be greatly improved by other means that piling out hours of transit service. here are some ideas we can provide:

  • Bus Stops consolidation
  • Consolidate bus stop! Too often, bus stops are not very far apart. The picture below is the one along the 410 route between Aberdeen Station and Garden city road:

    • East bound, the bus will stop every 200m on average!
    • west bound, at Garden city intersection, 2 stops are spaced by no more than 50m, with no reasonable explanation for it

    Those stops could be not such a draw on operation in off peak, but it will still involve a slowdown of the bus at stop without patron. At peak hour, it slowdown considerably the bus for marginal convenience (if any).

    The consolidation of bus stops could not save too much time on one run, but in the case of the 410 route example, there is ~100 runs per direction a day, so the cumulative time can be not negligible.
    In addition of time, the suppression of stops can certainly save other operational cost (less braking, acceleration,…), and can make the bus ride smoother.

    Other strategy, not necessarily very costly to implement, like traffic signal preemption, can also help not only to save time, but to improve the bus operation efficiency and ride smoothness

  • Demand management
  • “peak hour” determine the number of buses which need to be owned and maintained, and so can be expensive to serve, as it can be illustrated by the graph below ilustrating the translink’s bus service surge during peak hours[1]

    number of Translink's bus in service according to time of a regular day

    If Translink were coming with a fare structure favoring journey off peak hour, they could reduce this expensive peak pressure (hence reducing the number of bus to maintain and marginally operate…). An idea could be a discounted pass valid only after 9:30am (hence involving a return trip starting after 5:30pm for regular commute)…[2]

  • Bus schedules
  • provide a “regular timetable” for low frequency route: this is almost the case for route like the 351, but there is lot of room for improvment on the 601.
    On such route the schedule should be so simple that people could not need to have a timetable to know at what time their bus is schedule.

    More elaborated strategies like “code sharing” should be investigated to provide high visibility of level of service.

    Those last suggestions will note necessarily decrease the operating costs but are prone to attract more rider at no extra operational cost, and it is what Translink should explore for the time being, this to break out this vicious circle where, the “more people ride the system, the more subsidy it needs

    [1] the graph has been built by a contributor of the skyscraperpage forum

    [2] The reader will find further discussion on the topic at the human transit blog

    [3] TransLink on ‘life support’, Franck Luba, The province, May 12th. See also Geoff Meggs take on it.

    [4] Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities, Patrick Condon, 2010 . The chapter 2 available here is built on a previous publication: A Cost Comparison of Transportation Modes, Patrick Condon and Kari Dow, Foundational research Bulletin, November 2009.